Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Point

Harry Nilsson wrote this really cool cartoon musical called "The Point". It's about a people who all have pointed heads except for one boy named Oblio: he has a round head. In a story line straight out of the book of Esther, a count reminds the king that, by law, everyone has to have a literal point on their head. So even though they love Oblio, he is banished from their kingdom, but only for a time. After his travels outside the kingdom, he comes back to reveal to everyone that all things have a metaphorical point even if they don't have an actual point. 

Admittedly, Nilsson said he was inspired to write this story and musical after an acid trip. But I suppose you can deny the truth behind it: everybody has a point, a reason, a value. 


I was talking to Summar the other day about the handful of youth pastor Facebook groups of which I'm a part. Along with the usual discussions about curriculum and discipline issues, there seem to be an inordinate amount of posts about the conflict: with elders, with senior pastors, with other people on youth ministry teams, with parishioners in general. A lot of these posts involve people in the church pushing the youth pastor/leader out of their position; some of these involve other adults in these churches meeting with students without the student minister, or perpetually causing drama in student ministry situations. Pre-Facebook I knew of stories like this, but the frequency with which they are posted is disheartening and shocking to me.


I read these posts (and again it bares saying that there are a lot of them) and wonder how we've missed the point so many times. And I feel conflicted: I know that I've not led a single ministry perfectly. I am, to a fault sometimes it seems, acutely aware of my deficiencies, of which there are quite a few. But I would never presume to take a ministry from someone else. In my thinking, it seems you're messing with something that God has ordained. And I don't mean that people shouldn't be removed from ministries, but there are God-ordered and appropriate ways to do such things. To take something that isn't yours is mere thievery. 


Most of the time these conflicts lack even a modicum of grace. There are certainly youth pastors who are deficient to the point that they must be removed, and this isn't a blanket defense of all pastors in all situations. But the way in which many of these stories unfold seem to be an adventure in missing "the point". After all, the statistic that youth pastors last an average of eighteen months (at least that's what it was when I went to school) should give the church pause. 


If you attend church, you have heard it, time and again: we all have gifts. We are all loved by God. God has a plan for us all, etc., etc. If you hear sermons regularly, you've probably heard these concepts over and over. My guess is that the players in those Facebook posts have heard it, too. And yet, there seems to be a lot of church folk who don't want to apply that truth to everyone, including, on occasion, their pastoral staff. As Sly Stone sang, "We got to live together." And yes, we got to. That's how this church thing works. 


Pastors are reticent to say it at times, but I will: we trained for this work. Just like you trained for your work. And we not only trained, but many of us have done it for decades. We are not infallible, but we speak and decide from experience. And even if a pastor and leader is young and new, it's likely that they have blind spots that they haven't filled in yet. There is no doubt that, if the roles were reversed, these people would want and need the grace to find their footing. So they need gentle guidance and support. And yet, in so many of these stories I read, among the body of Christ who collectively is supposed to bear each other's burdens, that grace and gentleness is simply gone. 


And that is the point: we all bear each other's burdens in the body of Christ. There isn't an asterisk that says "*except for pastors" or "*except for elders" or "*except for people who we disagree with". It doesn't work like that. And while this post is specifically about pastors, I think church people could stand to be nicer to each other in general. After all, that is a part of our "point", that life that God said we are to lead. It's all over the New Testament:


"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (Romans 14:9)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)


"Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you." (2 Corinthians 13:11)


"You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But don't use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love." (Galatians 5:13)

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." (Ephesians 4:2)

When I worked at a shipping company during my college years, I spent a week training on how to sort packages and load trucks and planes. When we finally went to the floor to start the actual work, one of my fellow trainees complained: "When we were trained, they said we were supposed to do things a certain way. When we got down here, it's not like any of that." At first I thought, "Well, yeah...that's how this stuff works. It's never like the ideal that you're given initially." But the church IS supposed to work hard toward that ideal, even if we never quite make it. I read these stories in these groups and sometimes it feels like people aren't even trying. And we really don't have that option. We'll get it wrong, we'll make it messy, we'll screw it up, but we have to keep trying. If you are a Christian, you don't get to opt out. 


One time, in a particularly tense leadership meeting right after one of the pastoral staff had been let go, I shared with the leadership what it's like to start and leave a ministry. I shared that when you come to a new church in a pastoral role, that's most likely all you know. You only the know the people there. You have uprooted yourself and your family and everything you know (and in many cases pulled yourself away from the rest of your family) to come to a place you don't know much about to serve a people that you're only marginally familiar with. You're trying your best to fit into what is going on, and at the same time you want to be yourself and also assimilate in a way that is true to you and your gifts and calling. On top of that, your social structure, at least initially, emanates entirely from your new church. All the people you know attend there. People call and visit to encourage, for sure, and also, on occasion, to vent their frustrations and sometimes even get you on "their side", whatever that even means. You sometimes even live in a church parsonage, so even your home is tied to church. Either way, when people come to visit, some make note of how your home is kept. In general, some people in your church family comment on your appearance, your car, your child. I've had more than one person talk about my son in a negative way to other people in the church after a church service. 


I shared in that meeting that, because of all of this, church is your life. You can't leave anything "at the office". You're always on call and available. You never truly leave. For those of you who have jobs like this, you know how tiring this can be. Even then, there aren't that many professions besides pastoral work where most your friends are also your fellow workers or volunteers, and at any moment could be people you are also counseling through trials like divorce and death. You fill more roles in the lives of the people you know than any other work that I can think of. When you are asked out to social functions or you attend activities in the community, you are always "on". You don't get to not be on the clock. People at your church see you in stores and restaurants. They sometimes note what you wear, what you said or didn't way, how you talked to a cashier. 


And then, when you leave or are asked to leave, it's like putting the film in reverse. All those roots you planted (because you have to plant them to get involved in the lives of the people in your church so that you can minister to them) are pulled up. If you live in a parsonage, your house may be gone. If you were asked to resign, you were uprooted immediately. If you resigned simply because it was time, you may still have people angry at you (or, even worse, do a happy dance, which I've seen). If you are leaving on bad terms, the majority of the people you've spent years pouring into will never speak to you again, even if they personally had no issue with you. Your child(ren) has to change schools, make new friends, and leave the church that they have grown up in. 


So I shared some of this in that difficult meeting, and afterward, an elder came up to me and said, "I never thought about it like that." And I think that's the problem: most people don't. They know what it's like to leave a job; they may know what it's like to relocate and leave family. But few know what I would consider to be the unique situation of a leaving pastor. You may disagree. And while I have enjoyed the vast portion of my last twenty years of pastoral work (and I truly have), that doesn't mean that it doesn't hold unique challenges. 


And so when I read those Facebook posts about how people have turned on those youth pastors, all of those things go through my mind. It very much saddens me. When I resigned at one of my churches, I asked one of the leaders how long they wanted me to stay on. He said, in an increasing volume until he was literally yelling at the top of his lungs, "Where I work, you don't stay on. We escort you out. That's it. You have no more time." I stayed there two more months, but he wouldn't speak to me after that. Keep in mind that I resigned and left there on good terms, and I was close to this person before I resigned. Some invisible line had been crossed, I suppose. 


So, my exhortation to all believers is this: don't miss the point. Living in communion with one another is about love and grace. And although I've written mostly about pastors, it's true for everyone in your church body. You are obliged to live, as far as it is possible, at peace with everyone. I share this post not to illustrate how tough pastoral life is. A lot of people have tough jobs, and everyone is fighting their own battles on a daily basis. But I want people to know that, by and large, your pastors and church leaders are trying. They're wrestling. They want to do the right thing. I know there are exceptions. But don't forget that we are all, in the most important way possible, on the same team. That is the point. Don't miss it. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Everyday I Write the Book

I'm coming up on my twentieth anniversary in ministry. I was ordained on January 1, 1997 (my birthday!). I guess I can't really count the year-ish we spent in Nashville, so next January, that will be around twenty years.

I never thought I'd do anything for that long.

In college I was convinced that in a couple of years I'd be touring the country in a van with three or four other guys playing songs that we'd write in hotel rooms and record in ramshackle studios. That was literally my dream, in that I sometimes actually had dreams to that effect while I slept. I was sure of it, as if I had been told that I'd be fated to this life, much like an Old Testament father names his son a word that seals his future.

Instead, I have been a paid, professional musician in a different way. And I only recently realized this. I suppose the appropriate way to look at twenty years in ministry is to look at it as twenty years of pastoral work. And that's true. That, of course, comes first. But I have also been paid to play music in that pastoral role for two decades. I really like that. I suppose, then, I did achieve my dream, and found another one in the process. This is typical of how God works, at least as much as I've understood such things.

Along the way, I've done all the other stuff of ministry: preached, counseled, taught, performed weddings and funerals, taught youth and children, etc. I've enjoyed most of it. I used to teach adults a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was told early on in ministry by quite a few people that I should write a book. I am. Three, in fact. But I struggle with the tone of the book that will be about my experiences in ministry. And here's why.

My guess is, if they felt comfortable enough to be honest, that most pastors would tell you about the roller coaster ride that is ministry. And it is. I could just as easily write a book about all the kindness expressed to me and my family as I could the hurts and wounds. The surprise Christmas gifts and the surprise scathing and insulting Christmas card (yes, this happened to me). The wonderful relationships and the abrupt ends to some of those relationships. The wonderful comments about my family versus the harsh words that both my wife and son have had aimed at them. In my more negative moments, I suppose my flesh would love nothing more than to write a tell-all expose about all of the nonsense me and my friends in ministry have experienced. But, of course, that is only part of the story, and, much like most good writing, you have to tell it all. There is plenty of good, more than bad I would guess, by far. It's humbling to be told that people continually pray for your ministry, or be given a car out of the blue, or be told that you've made an impact in a student's life. Telling it all would mean taking an account of all of those wonderful, unexpected instances where God showed up through those around us. That alone would make a great read. But there's much more to the story.

I could write about my ignorance or impatience instead of the mistakes of others, feverishly scrawling all of those things I didn't know or thought I did but didn't. That would be fair and true. But most people don't really want to recount their failures and failings. Some of those are too embarrassing to conjure up for a chapter (or chapters) on what not to do. I hesitate to say I could write a book solely on that, but it would at least be booklet, if not a multi-volume tome. I'd like to think that the successes would take up more space, but I really don't care to find out.

My wife remarked the other day that our moves, our changes, have taken a toll on us, and I'd agree. If you have uprooted your family a time or two, you know this. Although we've always left churches by our own choice, it didn't always feel that way, and those separations and distant friendships sometimes make you yearn for when everything will be made right. I reminded her of something a pastor friend told me early on in ministry: don't get too close. When he said that, I scoffed in my youthful idealism. For a variety of reasons, I now understand the sentiment, even if at times I don't heed his advice. It makes me sad that anyone, no matter what role they play in church, would feel that they have to circle the wagons around themselves for protection against other believers. I'm not naive enough to think that this isn't necessary at times. But I'm idealistic enough to keep wishing it weren't so. When my wife and I have shared openly, without thought of any judgment, we've never regretted it, because it was true. I hope that's true for most pastors and most people in church in general, because we all have crud, right? And we don't just have crud that we talk about; we have crud that we'll never share. That's true for all of us, and it'd be good if we could all remember that. It'd be good for me to remember that more, for sure.

I do know that my book will talk about the unique nature of the vocation of ministry. I've gone back and forth on this over the years. I've heard pastors talk about how difficult the ministry life is, and sometimes I dismiss this summarily because I know we all have difficult situations in our work and home life. I won't say it's harder, because to do so would be to diminish the struggles all of us have. But I will reiterate that it is unique: unique because you live your life with the people you serve, and when you go home you still wear the hat of pastor. You certainly don't do that in retail, or most jobs that I can think of. Your bosses and those to whom you are accountable are also people you are called to build close relationships with, which means they get to see you at your best and your worst. This is daunting. The operative phrase now is "do life together". I know that at times the veil will fall and I won't be the best me and I can be (how's that for some 1980's self esteem phrasing!) and I know that this could hurt what I do. But I suppose, in our best moments, that's what grace is for. In those best moments, we'll give it until it hurts a little, or even a lot. And that's why it's tough. By letting people in (and by them letting you in), they are getting power (and so are you).

This is true of all relationships, of course, but I am especially mindful of it regarding pastoral work, because your close relationships, your community, and your source of income are all rolled into one. I suppose if I were to think about it, there might be other professions of which this is true. But right now, at this late hour, I can't think of one. When your vulnerability is somewhat tied to your livelihood, you feel that tension. If you cross an invisible line of expectation, you could damage relationships or possibly be fired. If you withhold too much, your ministry might not grow. And although I've had twenty years to grapple with this, there won't be much advice in my book on how to navigate this. It remains a challenge, I would guess, for most pastoral staff.

Being introverted, I prefer to write. That way, I say exactly what I want to say. I can refine it before it goes out into the world. I love that. I'd much rather text or e-mail than speak face to face, unless I'm having an in-depth conversation about apologetics or music. So the idea of compiling a book about the church I know, the good, bad, and the indifferent, is appealing. I can tell my story exactly how I want it to be told. But I don't want it to be filtered or laden with agenda. As I said before, in my more negative moments, I might want people to know about the scars. But the problem with that is it's a skewed account, and it's the kind of thing I would like to avoid at all costs. Because we're all David: murderers who are after God's own heart. Maybe not literal murderers, but you get the point. And that's the story that needs to be told, about me, about you, about everyone. You don't need redemption if there's nothing to redeem. And that's the story of the church, really: perpetual redemption, which means there's a whole lot of good coming out of a whole lot of bad. That's the book I'll write. In fact, it's the book I'm writing as we all are everyday. And it's the lesson I hope to continually learn.


Friday, February 03, 2017

It's Been a While (And Other Stuff)

It's been over two years since I've blogged. That's really odd, but I've been quite busy. Lately, I've actually had some time to think and felt like maybe it was time to jump start this thing again. The election and its aftermath have had some influence on that. I have a lot I'd like to write about that (because Facebook posts just don't cut). Maybe some day.

But today I'm thinking of childhood. I'm currently working on a collection of songs about where and how I grew up. I want to portray it all honestly without giving it all away. This project started a couple of years ago, and it began with an epiphany.

In the last decade, it seems to me anyway, there's been a lot more talk in schools about bullying. When I was in school, I remember very little "awareness" about it. If some kid bullied you, you'd either tell the teacher or take it. If you told the teacher, that'd probably be bad ("snitches get stitches" after all) and you'd probably get more of the same. If you took it, that meant that you'd probably get more of the same. Because of some of the problems my son has had in school (although it's been a lot better in the last couple of years), it made me start to think about my school days and the bullying I encountered.

It was weird because I'd never really thought about my school experience in those terms. After high school, I'd never had anyone try to do to me what kids in high school did. I'm a big guy, and although I love me some Jesus, I can be blunt and defensive when I feel a situation warrants. So I really have never had any problems during my adult life, and as time went on, I've become less and less passive (to a fault at times I'm sure) and simply forgot about the past. But a couple of years ago, all this stuff started to flood back, and I realized that my experience in school was not normal.

It was not normal to be called denigrating names day after day. It was not normal to be hit by any number of people at random times for no apparent reason. It was not normal to never be picked for anything, whether it was in a gym class or classroom setting. That was my school experience growing up, and it didn't fully end until I graduated. I was fat and poor and socially backward. This is not a great combination for social success.

As for school itself, I hated going. I loved sitting in a classroom and learning. I still do. But I absolutely loathed getting on the bus everyday knowing what awaited. I took every opportunity to miss school, and milked every sickness for all it was worth. I may have been the only kid who loved class but always missed the maximum number of days. In the last couple of years it got better. I got less awkward and made some friends. But that stuff sticks with you.

I wanted to share all this for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's just on my mind, since I'm kind of digging into that time period to pull out some ideas for lyrics. I can't say that it's really that painful because I've made whatever peace I needed to so that I could move on. I'm not the same timid kid, so I'm not perpetually bothered by any of it.

But the other reason is that I've seen the bullies come out of the woodwork in the last few months. There is some nasty speech and behavior going on, as you probably know. And whether or not we want to blame the election or politicians, the truth is that those individual people are responsible for their actions, no matter who is elected or what their ideology is. We seem to be quick to throw up epithets like "libtard" or "racist" or (and this has got to be the weirdest turn of a phrase ever), "snowflake". I mean, who would have called that as being an insult?

Anyway, we're not doing each other any favors. I could point fingers about this stuff. A part of me would like to. But it wouldn't accomplish anything and any discussion that came out of it would be charged with vitriol. We should be discussing this politics and debating the merits of policy, but no one should get to resort to bullying tactics to make their voice heard. I know that people will respond that this is the reality of the world, but that is no excuse since the reality of the world is whatever we make it. The world can be a hard place, but don't we have the strength to be better?

A seventeen year old kid killed himself this week. He'd been the subject of ongoing ridicule at both his workplace and school. Most likely, if I had my guess, he was a nice kid who was just different enough that everyone else, and he probably seemed weak. He was overweight and spoke with a speech impediment. His boss has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. I have no idea if that's the right thing to do or not. But I know that us humans love to pick at weakness, like we're chickens, mere animals who don't have the sense or will to stop.

The anonymity of the internet has obviously given us license to be more crass and outspoken. We all know this, but we're unwilling to stop it. Online behavior seems to have allowed us to be subhuman: people send death threats, call people names that they probably don't say in public (and most likely wouldn't say in front of their kids), and generally treat each other like garbage when they disagree. We have to escalate because clearly, if someone doesn't agree with us, they must not be as intelligent. I don't like to let arguments go, either, but I stop short of name calling. How does name calling prove me right? If an argument is solid, you don't need anything else, ideally.

So be nice, would ya? Seriously. Ratchet down whatever rhetoric you're engaging in that doesn't accomplish anything. If you can present your case cogently and calmly, you might actually win some folks over. Unless your goal is to just hate people who aren't like you. Now we would never do that, would we?




Monday, October 20, 2014

Nine Months in Aurora, IL

We're nine months in to a new ministry in a way-out Chicago suburb, on the edge of farms and prairie. We're living in the second largest city in Illinois, which is Aurora. You may know it from its portrayal in the movie Wayne's World. Do you remember that donut place that's in the movie? It's not here. But there's a Dunkin' Donuts just down the street. I guess that will have to suffice. 

This is our fifth ministry. Seventeen years. I turned forty this year. That's the age when you look back and take a little stock. Not too much. Just enough. Given the earlier posts on this blog, it was almost amazing that I finally found another church job (if you want a good pity party, scroll through them!). I just taught on Abraham in our student ministry, and how it can take a long time for things to align, and how God aligns things in His time. I'm not going to say that I was thrilled with our timeline: I don't think I should pretend that I understand it. But it wasn't bad at all. Hopefully the posts below echo that. I haven't read them since I wrote them.

As a return to form, today's post will talk about a musician, and some lesson that can be derived from what they did. This time around, it's George Harrison.

George was the odd beatle: not John or Paul, but not Ringo. I'm a big Harrison fan and love his solo work. But, knowing his history, he was probably never going to be received as the genius of his more prolific counterparts. In the 70's, after the Beatles' split, however, he seemed to take on the role of ex-Beatle George with aplomb: he produced artists, formed his own record label, and released the best (IMO) solo record of any Beatle, All Things Must Pass. When you listen to it, you are hearing songs written during by George concurrently during the album sessions ranging all the way back from Rubber Soul (1965) to Abbey Road (1970). Many of these were rejected for recording by the other Beatles. 

There's a Get Back-era rehearsal of George showing John the chords to "Let it Down", a great track on All Things Must Pass. The tape reveals John's disdain for the chord progression (typical of many Harrison tunes, with diminished or major seventh chords and asymmetrical progressions). It certainly wasn't straight ahead rock and roll, but it seemed like George had taken pop melody and stretched it almost into a jazz-like structure. John wasn't a fan, and it was the only rehearsal of the tune.

The span from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road was five years. That's not a long time in today's pop music landscape, but back then it was an eternity, when bands released two albums and two singles a year. That's a lot of product to put on shelves, especially if you are writing it. And it's a long time to wait to put out finished material that you are working on and completing. Imagine a group of painters telling one of their own that they can't hang most of their work up. "It just doesn't fit" or "We've already used most of our paintings" or "The wall's already full". Whether or not you're in the Beatles, you're probably not going to put up with that construct forever. 

This part of Beatles lore makes me wonder how we individually know when we're supposed to be a team player, and when we're supposed to be the star. You and I probably both know people who go out on their own, start their own business (or band), and either succeed or fail to varying degrees. How did these people know when to separate from their comfort and take the risk on becoming what they believed they could fully be? Of course, I tried something like that and failed (see earlier blog posts) and I regret a portion of that, but the good news is that it's hard to regret the experience you receive from your failures. You learn hard lessons, and that's a positive thing. I'm guessing, though, that I probably would have enjoyed it more if we would have succeeded. :)

One thing I know is that it doesn't scare me any more. We moved four times in four years (I don't recommend it) but I'm not really afraid of much. If I lose it all tomorrow (not that I'm anticipating this), I'll just get back up and start again. I feel like that whole experience made me my own person. I feel comfortable in my own skin. And in a profession (ministry) where you are sometimes encouraged to put on a facade for a variety of reasons, that can be a challenge. Happily, I don't really do that. But, as Over the Rhine would say, "Lord knows we've learned the hard way all about healthy apathy". Amen. I've learned to have passion about things that count, and be apathetic about things that don't. Hopefully, not to a fault. 

This brings us back to George. After All Things Must Pass, his solo career was inconsistent. He had quite a few albums that didn't sell, singles that tanked and a tour in 1974 which turned him off of touring for life (save for a handful of concerts in Japan). And on those post-All Things Must Pass solo records, I feel like I hear George vacillating between pop star hit maker, and spiritual guy who does his own thing. On one record in particular, Somewhere in England, the record label told Harrison to replace some songs because they were too dour and depressing. He complied, but only to a point, writing a new song called "Blood From a Clone". That's not exactly, as Nirvana would say, a radio-friendly unit shifter. My copy of this album is a cut-out, the process by which companies discount records that aren't moving. They actually "cut out" a portion of the cover to denote that it was returned to the label, which then is sent out again and sold at a far lower price. I remember in the early 80's seeing a whole cut out crate full of George's next record, Gone Troppo. After the relative failure of this record (which I love), George retreated and worked on movies (among them, Shanghai Surprise, the Madonna/Sean Peen vehicle). He "returned to form" on 1987's Cloud Nine. In interviews from that time period, it seemed like George had become what he had always at least teased: a guy who only cared about what moved him, what mattered. He did promotion, but did it on his own terms, suffering no fools in interview clips from the time. You can't live in a shadow forever, even if it's John Lennon or Paul McCartney or the Beatles mythos. He had become his own Beatle...er...man. 

Just like a preacher talking about standing in judgment before God, you sometimes stand alone. Not in a bad way. But sometimes, when the time is right, when God aligns everything, it's time for you to do your thing, to do the thing that He's given you to do. And it may not be now, and it may be multiple times. It may be when you're a hundred, like Abraham, or when you're not even an adult yet, like David. And you may have to do your version of recording critically maligned bad albums to get to the really good record that you were created to make. But whatever that looks like for you, I think you'll have your time. Maybe you've already had it, and another is on the way. I hope so.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

Unemployable

I've written at length here about our adventure after leaving full time ministry in the fall of 2010. Long story short, we moved to Nashville to pursue a music career, found it to be a fool's errand, and felt that we should go back to full time church work.

That was two and a half years ago.

I thought that, since I had never really had a problem finding a ministry in the past (usually taking 1-2 months), that, although the wait might be a little longer, we'd soon secure another position somewhere. I grossly misjudged how difficult it would be. Below is a screen cap of my "Applied to" e-mail folder. Note the number of e-mails. I also haven't saved every rejection e-mail. Some of the names have been changed to protect the...er...participants.


There is a certain pull to ministry, if you've been in it awhile. I'm typing this on a weekend where we are visiting one of the churches where we've served. People don't usually go back and spend a weekend at their "old job" just to visit (although they might hang out with their old work buddies), but church work isn't just a job: the people who you serve become family. When you leave, you leave because of reasons related to the job part of the ministry, but much of the time you leave in spite of the relationships you have made. I can say that this was true for all of the churches I have left. We still have friends at those places. We still miss all of our old haunts. If the work portion of our commitment had been different, we probably would still be at one of these churches.

I think if there's one thing I could get church leaders, and church people in general, to understand about ministers who leave is that ministry has a tension where it is part job, part family. And that, just because the job part may end for a variety of reasons, the family part doesn't. You don't all of the sudden stop caring for the people in your past churches just because you're not there any more. You still grieve at their losses, and rejoice their gains. Your lives become intertwined and it can be awesome and messy all at the same time. In many cases, you wish things had been different, because you didn't really want to leave. In some cases, like us, you leave simply to pursue what you feel might be a better fit or situation for you and your family. That doesn't make you a bad person. Many of the ministers I know are just trying to figure out what God wants from them when they make a move.

Pearl Jam's "Unemployable"

Those relationships that we have built are a big part of the reason why we want to do church work. The community of believers in every church is what we know, and is appealing to us. It is not perfect, and neither are we. But it is comfortable to us, in a good way. I think we were surprised at how much we missed it during our time in Nashville. Thankfully, after yet another move, we did find a church where I could work part-time, to use my gifts and to fellowship with.

I have estimated that I have applied to roughly 150 churches. Sometimes, when they rejected me, I asked them why, in the interest of self-improvement. I don't recommend doing this. I have learned several things throughout this process of continual rejection. The first one is that churches don't see you they way you see yourself. They see a very small part of who you are and what you can do. Most of what ministers do isn't quantifiable, or can be comprised into a three-minute YouTube video. For example, I have a couple of videos of me leading worship posted there. Whenever I send them with my resume, that's usually the end of the conversation with a perspective church. Unfortunately, they are the only videos I have. They certainly aren't a good representation of all the things I've done over the years, all the different ways I've led worship, or more importantly, all the people I've shared the Gospel with, musicians I've trained, people I've counseled or prayers I've prayed. It was because of these videos that one church told me that my "guitar playing or singing (were not) sufficient for you to come in and lead our people". Now, if there's one thing I'm good at, one thing in the world, it's playing guitar. But, that's the point: the video, where I'm simply playing chords with two other singers and a bass player, doesn't show virtuosity.

The second thing I've learned is that shifts in culture can age you out of your work. I've talked to several pastors who have either hired or have talked about what I call the "archetype of post-modern minister". Churches are looking for someone younger than me, more dynamic than me, more....something....than me. The irony in this is that I have been called to churches that have been a little more conservative in their approach to worship. So, all of that experience has now made me the worship leader I am. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but what churches want in a worship leader has drastically changed in the last ten years. I can do that, I can be that guy, but I have no proof that I can do that, no tangible evidence that I can be that guy.

I was bothered by several things during this time of job and soul searching, but one thing really stuck out: why are churches trying to hire a certain kind of person, while at the same time praying for the right person? Those may not be even close to the same thing. So many churches want a certain kind of personality for their pastor positions, a certain look for their worship positions, a certain energy for their youth positions. But relationships you build in ministry transcend all that. It's not about plugging in a certain component, as if thinking about people as puzzle pieces is somehow going to make your church successful. Instead of looking for the next church CEO, or the next Chris Tomlin, churches should be looking for people who care, people who want to be a part of their family. I may not look the part of the worship leader that many churches are looking for. But I think, more importantly, I feel I live the part of someone who has compassion, who is dependable, who wants the church to thrive and flourish. So, how does that make someone unemployable?

Friday, March 01, 2013

Family: You Can't Live With 'Em, etc...

Today, while being the best darn can jockey I can be, I started thinking about family. My extended family. I go in spurts doing this. What made me ruminate on these folks that I am biologically connected to (but rarely see) was a reel-to-reel tape.

If you're old enough, you might know what that is. If you don't, here's what the tape and player look like:



When I was a kid, we had one of these. My father, like I assume so many GI's, brought it home from Vietnam. It had red sand in it, the kind that I assume would blow around during storms over there. It was a monster. Heavy. It had a handle, but the handle almost seemed like a dare: portability wasn't it's strong suit.

Record companies made pre-recorded tapes for these players, but really what a consumer would use it for was recording their own personal music. This was pre-VCR, even before the wide spread proliferation of cassette decks and boom boxes. My dad recorded himself playing guitar, my mom recorded herself playing the "Jew's harp" (I kid you not, that's what it's called) and they both recorded audio of TV shows and movies. One of these, the audio from the "Elvis on Tour" film, I still have. Before we ever had a video copy of that movie, I'd listen to this extensively.

On the beginning of that tape, before the movie starts in, there's me. I'm three years old, and my mom and dad are trying to get me to sing or speak into the microphone, and I'm having none of it. Every time the microphone comes close to me, I scream, saying "I don't want to, Mommy, I don't want to!". Why I didn't wanted to, I don't remember. It's ironic considering the amount of time over the last twenty five years I've spent in front of a microphone.

Lesson Learned From Family #1: People who are related to you will try to get you to do things that others won't.

When I was ten, while visiting me and my mother, my grandmother told me she'd give me ten bucks for all my Elvis 45's (I had around 40). Being a kid who wanted to respect authority, I complied. My mom didn't know about this until my grandmother was leaving. My mom, seeing that this was unfair, told her so while she was getting in her car. As she drove off, my grandmother said, "A deal's a deal!"

Of course, even when she passed away, she still had this crate of records which somehow never reverted back to me in her death. Well played, grandma, well played.

That day, my grandmother inadvertently taught me a healthy skepticism of all authority that has been lasting. I actually am thankful for it, and I feel that skepticism can serve you well. Everyone needs a bullcrap detector sometimes.

Lesson Learned From Family #2: People who are related to you don't always have your best interests at heart.

Around about that same time, I was at my grandfather's house looking through his records. Of course, I was looking for Elvis records, and I was disappointed that he only had a couple. My grandfather was a great guitarist, loved jazz and was playing professionally way before rock and roll. I asked him what he thought of "the King" and he didn't have kind words to say: "He couldn't play guitar. I suppose he could sing ok." My stepgrandmother chimed in with "Oh, those are my records", as if to provide an excuse for having such musical contraband. A couple of years later, when Sgt. Pepper never left my CD player, I inquired about his opinion regarding the moptops: "They are alright. Not great guitar players but good songwriters." They were no Django Reinhardt, to be sure, who was my grandpa's favorite player.

I find it interesting that, even though he knew of my love for Elvis, he was not accommodating of that fact. In fact, neither set of grandparents on either side of my family were known to suffer fools.

Lesson Learned From Family #3: People who are related to you don't always consider your feelings.

Here's the deal with this post right here: I'm glad they didn't take it easy on me. I don't agree with what happened all the time with my family and me, but soft, warm, fuzzy people they were not. And, in a world that isn't soft, warm and fuzzy either, those relationships prepared me for what was to come. As I got older, went to college and took jobs all around the eastern half of the U.S., I didn't see them very much. And even that prepared me to be flexible in a profession where you deal with difficult interpersonal situations continually.

This whole post might sound like I am being critical of these people. But it's really more like a travelog, that tells you how you got to where you are. Your relationships with your family are a lot like tourist traps and greasy diners: some you like, some you don't, but they all stick with you and mold you.

That these three stories each have some connection with Elvis is no coincidence: I was a big fan early on, and your family's reaction to something that's important to you as a child says a lot about them. But I don't think that negative reactions to something that a child loves are always terrible. In fact, they can build character and encourage a kid to be honest, even blunt about what they like, who they are and what they will and won't do. I'd take my relation any day over an antiseptic, milquetoast existence where nothing was ever confronted and nothing ever mattered. In a beautifully twisted way, I want to tell my family, "thanks".

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Rockin' Preacher

I promised this post awhile ago. And, well, here ya go!

On the surface, it seems like a case of "one of these things is not like the other": the rock star becoming a preacher. And yet, so many times in the history of rock and roll, some of those great rock gods gave their lives and careers over to the capital G God. It might seem like a head scratcher to some, but let's review, shall we?

A lot of those early rockers (Elvis, Jerry Lee, etc.) were raised in church. Raised in church, in the south. Church is the south is serious. Still is. So many of those rockers actually learned their trade in church. Pentecostal churches were, in a way, ground zero for rock and roll: the chaos, the excitement, the music and the movements. It was all there, even back then. And good Christian folk, who otherwise would have eschewed such behavior, were totally fine with it, as long as it was in the name of Jesus.

It's funny that, in its infancy, rock music was protested most vociferously by the church. The early progenitors of the style were sons of the bride of Christ. When they warmed up or jammed informally, they sang Gospel tunes. Many of them were fans of Gospel singers, most significantly Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Blackwood Brothers, who Elvis loved. This was who they were, to the point that they recorded Gospel records at the height of their stardom, often to the chagrin of their management or labels.

What I love about these stories is that, far from being diametrically opposed, the church and rock music are almost the same thing. There's a fervency and urgency to it all. People are devoted to pouring on their adoration. The fans/parishioners are giving what they've got to what they believe in. And let's not forget the preachers/singers. They're the same person: working the crowd, communicating a message effectively and emoting in such a way that everyone gets it, and there's not a single heretic in the place.

Yet, there are differences, and the most marked difference is the perception of the two. The ubiquitous puritanism that engulfed America by the 1950's had framed the argument of morality in the simplest of terms: a conservative, moralistic lifestyle was what God desired. Any deviation from that must be sin, and rock and roll was deviation defined. If you're a church boy who grew up to sing "Great Balls of Fire" or "Good Golly Miss Molly", well, you're conflicted. And these men were, in more ways than one.

Little Richard is probably the most famous of all the rocker-turned-preacher. He grew up in Georgia, attending the African Methodist church. By age 10, he was faith healer. He loved charismatic churches, and the excitement was not lost on Richard. But, like all of us, he was a saint and a sinner. The original lyrics to "Tutti Frutti", for example, had to be edited and changed so that the song would even have a shot at airplay. His interest in orgies, his homosexuality, along with the typical alcohol and drug abuse that accompanied many of the early rock icons have always showed a man conflicted. But in 1957, at the height of his popularity, a plane ride to Australia changed all that. Richard claimed to have seen angels on the wings of the plane, which, after he reached his destination, crashed into the sea. This was all the sign he needed to abdicate that hedonistic rock and roll life he felt it had become, and devote his life to preaching the Gospel. He went back to rock, then back to evangelism, and then found a peace about both worlds.

Wayne Cochran was known as the "White Knight of Soul". His biggest claim to fame is writing "Last Kiss" (last popularized by Pearl Jam). Like Little Richard, he had a huge pompadour and charisma to match. He's now a minister at a church in Florida, and has been for decades.

There are others, too: Sting was planning on being a priest before his foray into the "devil's music". Richie Furay, of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, became a born-again Christian and eventual pastor. And let's not forget the Reverend: Al Green, who became a pastor in 1976, in the middle of the height of his R&B career. Of course, there is also a long list of rock stars who became Christians.

The fervent nature of both a rock and roll show and a pentecostal church service are almost one and the same: people get all worked up over something they believe in, or are excited about. The object of that adoration may be different, but the reaction is the same. The takeaway, I think, might be that certain personalities are drawn to both of these lives. Those people are very passionate and feeling individuals, who feel they have something to say, and also want people to hear it. You could say that it even takes a little ego to think that, week after week, a group of people are going to listen to you. I've known a lot of ministers who preach in spite of their humility, for sure, but there are also more than a handful who are almost made to get that kind of attention.

Some church going folk might be bothered by that. But I'd say that God gave them their charisma to somehow further the kingdom. You'll note that it's very hard for fallen ministers to stay out of the limelight. I think it's not only because they crave it, but that they are also somehow made to seek it. Sure, it's a fine line between being a sycophant/glory seeker, and just being your own charismatic self, but I think those people are naturally that way. The key for those people, and for ministers who stand in front of hundred of people every Sunday, is to know that they are in the service of those they stand before, just like a janitor or an electrician. There is no difference: they are providing a service. And it's a good lesson for rock stars, too. How many famous musicians have been felled by their own hubris? Remember Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol? No one is an entity unto themselves, and if nothing else, that's the lesson from rock stars becoming preachers. And now, rock stars singing Gospel: